You Want it Darker: Leonard Cohen’s Last Gift

Coming off the worst week in recent memory, a week capped off by Donald Trump’s stunning win in the 2016 United States Presidential Election, one would be hard pressed to find something positive to consider. Trump’s campaign had as its central message hate, hate against nearly everything and everyone who isn’t white. It’s difficult to get one’s head around the fact that a madman will be POTUS, but then, we’ve had madmen serve before, just not this outspoken in hate.

News of Leonard Cohen’s passing at the age of 82 came just hours within Trump’s victory. Talk about being kicked while down. Yet, Cohen’s timing was as impeccable as his style of dress. News of Cohen’s failing health first came to us in a letter he wrote for Marianne Ihlen, a former lover and muse. Part of that letter reads: “Well Marianne it’s come to this time when we are really so old and our bodies are falling apart and I think I will follow you very soon.” Just two weeks ago the New Yorker published a long piece by David Remnick on Cohen, in which Cohen claimed that, “I’m ready to die. I hope it’s not too uncomfortable. That’s about it for me.” Social media lit up with speculation as to what Cohen was trying to tell us. He had always had a semi-morbid sense of humor, so we dwelled within speculation for a few weeks. When we finally got the news that Cohen had passed from this life we were caught off guard because most of us were already in mourning from the election.

I have been listening to You Want it Darker, Cohen last album, released less than a month ago, almost continually. I wasn’t that crazy about it at first. With the exception of the title track, I though the songs too slow, too somber. But then, as I continued to listen I came to the realization that You Want it Darker is one of Cohen’s best albums. It’s a work that grows on you, that takes time to seep into the consciousness of its listeners. The poetry informing the work is not a cynical as I first thought. In fact, it’s a realistic take on a life beholding its own end. It’s beautiful and hypnotic. Its power comes from its honesty and compassion for the mind, as well as the body, as we are close to death. The poetry is deeply personal, but it’s also universal and humanizing. Our lives are finite, and the grace and dignity with which Cohen stared down the Angel of Death, and I can only hope that when my own time comes I have the same grace and dignity, is as poetic as anything he’d done. The poetry also comforts us with the possibility that as we step into death the fear of the unknown, of an altogether different way of being, will bring comfort or at the very least, resolve.

News of Cohen’s death distracted us from the madness of the election. I cannot help but think of the timing as Cohen last gift to humanity. True, the world is a lot darker and colder without him, but, thankfully, we still have his music, his poetry, and his somber self-reflection from which we can draw our own strength as we wander through these dark days. In June of this year the New Yorker published a poem, “Steer Your Way,” that ended up as a song on You Want it Darker. The first stanza runs as follows:

“Steer your way through the ruins of the Alter and the Mall

Steer your way through the fables of Creation and the Fall

Steer your way past the Palaces that rise above the rot

Year by year

Month by month

Day by day

Thought by thought”

Of course, we steer our way through all sorts of things during a lifetime, yet most of the time we fail to notice what it is that surrounds us, what informs us on our journey. The music and poetry of Leonard Cohen shed more than a little light on what it is that life can teach us if only we stopped to become aware. The truth is that we are distracted by everything we think of as life, when the fact is that we are unaware of the life as it is happening.

In the song “Treaty” Cohen writes: “I heard the snake was baffled by his sin, he shed his scales to find the snake within, but born again is born without a skin, the poison enters into everything.” The biblical connotations of the song are in keeping with Cohen’s poetic preoccupations. What strikes me about the lyric is that we are all snakes, we are the serpents in the Garden, and most of us fail to notice the change in our lives.

The sun comes up in the morning, and we continue to go round with our hectic and tortured lives. Yet, the music and poetry of Leonard Cohen gave us food for thought in the most humane way possible: he reminded us that to be human is to suffer, but that suffering with dignity is what makes us human. Cohen’s revelatory poetry strips back the cover of the psyche that offers protection from the endless night and hands us over to the revelation. The revelation is in human feeling, human understanding, of what it means to be human.

Au revoir, Leonard.

And thank you for the gifts you gave us.

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